2016-07-27
Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit magazine.

Ursula GoodenoughWhenever I spend time with Ursula Goodenough, one of Walt Whitman's more famous lines comes to mind: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." And as Whitman was a great nature poet, in her own way, so is Goodenough. A professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Goodenough does not believe in God, and yet in 1989 she joined the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, served as its president for four years, and still serves on its council and shows up each summer to speak at its conference on Star Island.
An impeccable scholar, her textbook, Genetics, is a classic in the field and in its third edition-and yet at the same time, she is the author of a poetic and accessible bestseller, "The Sacred Depths of Nature". Above all, she is one of the forces behind a growing movement that calls itself religious naturalism and suggests that whatever our religious beliefs, and even if we have none at all, we can all come together to celebrate nature, tell the epic of evolution with awe and joy, and protect the earth. A warm, brilliant and embracing woman, Ursula Goodenough's contradictions make up a harmonious whole--sort of like nature itself
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If you look at the evolutionary ladder, where do you think the sense of meaning begins? Do organisms other than humans have it?

All life has a kind of seamlessness. All creatures have to be aware of their environment, and there has been an evolution of the capacities needed for detecting increasingly complex stimuli. I have no problem calling this "meaning," since all creatures pick out meaningful facets of their environment. For the first creatures, these facets were physical and mediated by receptor proteins. Sperm and eggs find each other by protein shapes; photosynthetic bacteria find light by protein shapes. The impetus to figure out what's going on is still very much programmed into our highly complex brains.


How does meaning in humans differ qualitatively from the rest of life on Earth?

My sense is that in developed human minds, the notion of meaning has expanded beyond what's immediately out there. We're constantly trying to figure out what caused something. That's true of all sorts of brain-based organisms, but perhaps the difference in humans is that if we can't see an obvious cause, we postulate. If you're lying in bed and hear a noise outside, you might imagine it's a burglar or perhaps Prince Charming. The point is, we form hypotheses and draw up scenarios for what that stimulus might mean.

I think this whole need to understand cause expanded early in humans--we see it in cave paintings. If you are spending time with children, you see that they do this quite early: "What made me, Mommy and Daddy?" "What made Mommy and Daddy?". That recursive kind of seeking causal explanations for things is part of us.

Do you think world religions can be explained by wanting to know how the world works?

There are two possibilities. A great many people say we have language and imagination to posit creators, interveners, and agencies that we can't actually prove. And yet some people experience God within them--these experiences are not drawn-up hypotheses. It's possible those of us who don't feel God within them have deficient brains that aren't capable of such experiences; or alternatively, the people who experience these things have brains that somehow create them. As near as I can tell, the jury is out on that. I may be a non-theist who doesn't include a god concept in my religious orientation because I have an incompetent brain, or perhaps theists have brains giving them inaccurate information.

We now have the neurobiological evidence, from the studies of Andrew Newberg, M.D., that certain parts of the brain shut down and others light up during deep meditation. The fMRI work from Richie Davidson in Wisconsin on Tibetan monks also shows a shutting-down. This might explain how we access states of cosmic consciousness and unity. Whether this is a correlation or a cause, and what this means about the content of those experiences, we have no idea.

I've had interesting conversations with Andrew Newberg about this. There's no question that brains change when in these other states. A friend of mine talked about all of this as getting in touch with his froggy self-that when he's in a meditative mode, it's more like being a frog. It's not higher, but lower, but not in any pejorative way. It's shutting down parts of the cerebral cortex. As they say in the "How To Meditate" books, it's letting the thoughts go, and going somewhere else. That somewhere else could be higher or lower. It could be a more primitive brain state.

But, as Terry Deacon (a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley) and I have written, it's very unlikely that even if humans in altered states have fewer signals firing off in their cortex, the experience isn't very likely to be that of a frog's mind-state. The fact is that we humans can come back and talk about it, however inchoately. A frog can't.

Have you experienced those states of peace and expansion?

I don't have any problem accessing experiences of unity. I feel completely part of the universe and all that's going on. When I try to describe it, people say I'm obviously a mystic. It doesn't seem mystical to me in a theistic sense. It's not a state that engenders in me any sense that God is watching over me and paying attention to what I'm doing. It's much more what I understand the Eastern traditions to be talking about--a belonging to the universe, an overflow of astonishment and wonder and peace and tranquility.

Do you ever ask yourself how life came from inanimate matter?

I would say at some point enough improbable things happened to enable life to take off. There's a deep understanding that once something like this took off-however primitive and small and meaningless--that it would continue to expand through replication and encoding. I'd be very interested to know what versions of creation could be generated in a laboratory, since we'll probably never know what actually happened.

How about an even bigger mystery: how something came from nothing? Or was there always something?


The big bang is obviously one form of beginning, but the big bang in itself is unimaginable. It's one thing to think about God making a flower or infusing the planet with love, but to imagine what might be behind the big bang is so removed from real life that it actually loses importance for me. There's so much else to think about that's here and now. I like the Buddhist concept of beginning-less-ness, that the universe has always been going on. I didn't know about beginning-less-ness until about a year ago, or I might have invoked it in my book "Sacred Depths of Nature". I learned about it when I spent a week with the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala.

Ah, you're a lucky woman! The dialogues that he has with scientists are some of the most interesting I've ever read. What did you talk to him about?

I explained evolution to him in PowerPoint. It was fabulous; he's a fantastic guy. When he comes into a room, everything's different. He makes great contact; we were very engaged. I started talking about an enzyme and how proteins change their shape. We stayed on that for twenty minutes--he did not know much molecular biology, but was really interested and asked great questions. There was a fleeting moment in my mind when I wondered if we'd ever get past the third slide.

I like the Buddhist approach, too. If I start seriously thinking about nothing existing before something, my brain stops. It's easier to imagine a world that always has been and always will be, because I can visualize a sphere, which has no beginning and end if you are traversing it.

The Buddhist view is more congruent with evolution than are other views. You can actually have beginning-less-ness and still have creation of a particular universe ... The part that doesn't jibe for me is the whole notion that consciousness is this separate thing that goes in and out of sentient beings. In the Tibetan form of Buddhism, consciousness is seen as having specific manifestations in sentient beings. Buddhists do not regard plants as being alive; in their texts, plants don't die--they just dry up-because plants are not sentient. But what about when plants bend in the light? The idea that plants are not alive is an arbitrary judgment. At the end of my presentation I did show the Dalai Lama evolutionary trees where plants, animals and fungi come off the same critter. His Holiness looked at that slide very carefully. He's on record as saying if there's anything within Buddhism that regular science can prove to be wrong, then the Buddhist version must change.


In The Sacred Depths of Nature, you made a strong case for religious naturalism, for the idea that there is enough beauty and wonder in nature and evolution to give our lives meaning. A few critics pointed out that if this movement is to suffice as a framework for life, it needs to generate some kind of moral code. Do you agree?

People did tell me that a religion without morality doesn't cut it. My immediate response was, this is not religion, I'm talking about a religious orientation. A moral code is not my problem. But I did start thinking about it, and I realized they had a good point. So I began to examine to what extent our moral sensibilities could have come through our evolution. That was the only place it made sense for me to start. This is what my next book is about.

The good stuff of most religions turns out to be a golden rule that defines a morality which allows humans to flourish in community. We come from a whole lineage of creatures who are robustly social and have communities that work, so you look at how their flourishing communities are set up. Are there parallels between how life works in a structured, non-human primate group, in a human community, and in the moral guidelines religion offers? It's not all that different as far as I can tell-there is hierarchy, strategic reciprocity, nurture and empathy.

Some researchers, notably Marc Hauser (of Harvard University) are working on determining the building blocks of human morality by looking at "moral" behavior in non-human animals. They suggest that, like language, these building blocks are universally present.

This is useful to a point. We experience moral sentiments that I would argue come from our evolutionary heritage, but we do not experience them the way an ape experiences them. We experience them as humans do, which is symbolically. I think it's simplistic to postulate that a chimp and I are experiencing empathy in the same way. It's quite possible that the same hormonal limbic systems are firing off, but the chimp will interpret her experience differently, since she has a different brain than I do. It's very important to remember that our moral sentiments are experienced with our unique human minds.

So out of these sentiments we've developed a code to live by?

Right. We have minds that can imagine ourselves in others' situations and generalize from that. We can take a specific experience of compassion and expand it to feeling toward all those less fortunate. I believe a key reason is that we live in communities. Like most social animals, we evolved to flourish in community. Had we evolved from a non-social lineage, our moral codes might be quite different. In theory, if you could get a mouse to symbolize things, and to say what's on her mind, you probably wouldn't hear about the golden rule. But you'd hear about nurture, the taking care of babies.

As a movement, religious naturalism seems cleanly split down the middle, as it contains what one might call "God people" and "non-God people." How did they end up in the same place?

There are two flavors of God people: those whose God is natural and those whose God is supernatural. Certainly there are a lot of people within religious naturalism who have no problem with God language--God as love, God as evolution, God as process. People see God as part of nature and give God-attributes to the part of nature that they find most sacred. I encounter people like that all the time.

I consider myself a pantheist, and I know that monotheists often see pantheists as either having too much God or no God at all. On the other hand, non-theists like yourself often see pantheists as people gingerly taking their first steps to adulthood--which would be non-theism, of course. They are leaving the crutch of monotheism, but they aren't yet willing to give up God. And yet, I can tell you, my pantheism feels deep, visceral, and I really can't see the world any other way and never have.

Sometimes I envy people like you. I don't have "God," but in the end, both you and I sense the power, beauty, improbability and fragility of nature, and how essential it is to keep this planet thriving. To me, that is so much more important than some sort of fine-grained, end-of-day theological detail. I don't think you and I are in such different places. We both still see nature as vital--as our home, our birthing. The people who are truly bothered by God-concepts and find them stupid or ignorant or pathological are those like Richard Dawkins who just can't even imagine anybody having such concepts. That view is almost like homophobia--it's not open and pluralistic. I'm much more interested in helping people engage in this story of evolution. If they do that with theistic language, that's great.

What, then, can God and non-God people work toward together?

Perhaps we should all settle down and think about what's good in the world and what we want to do here. If we find this planet and its history and its story to be sacred, let's preserve and nourish it, and then we can go home at night and say whatever prayers we choose.

What do you feel about suffering? It's the eternal question that every religion, even religious naturalism, has to approach.

On a personal level, I can be completely devastated by the suffering of a friend, or by watching an animal in despair. I raised my kids with the rule that we should try to get any insect in our house into a cup and put it outside. But there's only so much that I can do. Even if I go fully vegan, I'm eating plants, and they're just as alive as anything else. The fact of the matter is that there's no way I can exist without eating.

I find the world, and the way life works, both glorious and terrifying. The joy is so precious, the suffering so unbearable. Now it's time for me to be jealous of you, that you can accept both extremes with equanimity.

We all eat or are eaten. That's the way life works, it's a greater rhythm. And that's why science and the understandings it has uncovered can be a source of joy.

This all relates to assent, a very important Judeo-Christian concept. "Thy will be done" is a God-kind of assent. "God works in mysterious ways," and you're supposed to give assent even if you don't like it. As a religious naturalist, I think of assent differently. Assent is saying, "Okay, for whatever reason, this is the way life works. It's an acceptance of what is. After that fundamental acceptance, I can live my life to minimize suffering and promote as much as good as I can, and try through whatever work I do to help others." We can't get around death, but we can get around poverty. We can try to avoid women being brutalized. We can curb environmental degradation.

One can start from the perspective of a religious naturalist or from the perspective of the world religions and arrive at the same place: a moral imperative that this Earth and its creatures be respected and cherished.